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by Alex Williams April 10, 2022
The type of alcohol used in medicine making is ethanol or ‘drinking alcohol’. The affectionate names of ethanol: aqua vitae, spirits, the Water of Life, and booze, conjure potion-like images in the imagination. As they should, since ‘aqua vitae’ was borne of the alchemical process. Legend ascribes the discovery of distillation and of aqua vitae to the alchemist Geber (Jábir-ibn-Hayyán). Other accounts say an Arabic alchemist named Rhazes discovered alcohol. Either way, distillation and the discovery of alcohol comes to us from what we now know as the Middle East. The word alcohol itself is derived from an Arabic word for a fine powder women used to stain their eyes, essentially evoking the meaning of ‘fine essence’.
From Dale Pendell (Pharmako/Poeia 2010, p. 72):
“The essential principle underlying the discovery is that the intrinsic power within the plant, or in this case within the wine, is an entity that can be extracted and collected with tools and the proper ritual. Nothing really new there, from a shamanic standpoint, other than the nature of the tools themselves: a retort instead of a bull-roarer, and a furnace instead of a drum.
Not the wine, but something within the wine.
And imagine the excitement when they found it: a clear, light liquid like water but not water — fineer than water, more sparkling than water. It was the essence, the quintessence, the vital principle of the wine. And they named it water of life: a liquid that burns with a sulphurous blue flame.”
It is fermentation taken a few steps further, through distillation (the essence separated from the ‘crude’ fermented product), we obtain the essence of the grape, or neutral grape spirits. We eventually learned to pull the essence from other plants in similar ways, notably from various grains and cane sugar.
So why is alcohol widely used in the process of herbal medicine making? Well, initially it was used as a way of preserving plant juices in the form of a ‘succus’ (expressed juice of a plant preserved in alcohol), as alcohol preserves herbs for years, even decades, while simultaneously extracting a wide spectrum of medicinal properties from them. Eventually we learned that we could adjust the alcohol level for different plants to appropriately extract the constituents within, bringing us to the preparation of herbal tinctures.
Tinctures are actually ‘hydroalcoholic’ extractions. Most of the alcohol commonly available from the liquor store is somewhere around 50% alcohol and 50% water. Most whiskeys clock in around 45%, most vodkas 40%...this number will always be available on the bottle typically as a proof which is always double the amount of the alcohol percentage…more on this below.
There are two approaches to making a tincture. The folk method and the precise or ratio method. In the folk method, you simply fill a jar halfway with the herb of your choice, fill the jar all the way with alcohol, and steep for at least two weeks. Super simple.
I tend to take a slightly more complicated approach so I can create consistent tinctures that reveal through the process of making them the qualities of each herb as it extracts over time. This will also show us how to replicate our tinctures with consistency in the future.
Both methods share the necessity that the solvent needs to cover all the herbal material so the herbal material does not have the opportunity to oxidize or mold.
Using a more precise method, we need to ask ourselves: how much liquid do I use in proportion to herbs? Here, herbalists use a ratio, and the ratio depends both on how potent we want our preparation to be and how dense the herbal material is. It’s important to note here that potency does not necessarily mean “more effective”. Rather, it has more to do with how much of an extract is needed for a given effect. Less potent preparations require a higher dosage for the same effect as a lower dose of a higher potency preparation. The same applies to the flavor of an herb coming through in a blend, higher potency extracts will require less of that extract to make itself known in the blend.
If this is confusing, it’s because it kind of is, but the more you make tinctures the more it clicks.
In the meantime, let’s try and make it as simple as possible, by going back to our original question: how much liquid do I use in proportion to herb?
The standard way herbalists answer this question is in the form of a ratio with the amount of herb first and the amount of liquid second (1:5) or (1 part herb : 5 parts liquid).
Using this ratio, amounts are always measured by weight rather than volume, as the weights of various solvents are different. Alcohol and water, however, have a weight that is closely related to its volume (i.e. 100g of water or alcohol is about equivalent to 100ml of water or alcohol). Since we will be using alcohol and water as our primary solvents, we have the luxury of weighing the herb and measuring the solvent by volume. Most herbalists, in fact, when making alcohol-based extracts, simply convert weight to volume when measuring the solvent.
So you get this ratio: (weight of herb : volume of solvent)
So for our purposes, all we need to know is that for a 1:5 extraction rate, we need 1 part by weight of plant material to 5 parts by volume of solvent. We can translate this into, say, 10 grams of gentian root to 50ml of solvent (typically a mixture of alcohol and water). If you prefer to work in ounces (1 ounce of gentian root to 5 liquid ounces of solvent), that’s fine by me, but I tend towards grams and ml, as it is my preferred method, and I think, much easier when blending smaller amounts of tinctures in the final phase of making your bitters.
The extracts we make will vary between extraction ratios of 1:2 to 1:10 depending on the plant used. Gentian root is much denser than lavender bud, so we are able to use a lower ratio to successfully cover all of the herbal material, lavender buds are much less dense, so we are not likely to cover all of the herbal material if we use a standard 1:5 ratio, we’ll likely need to increase to 1:7 or 1:8 (interestingly this ends up being the perfect ratio to draw out lavender’s delicate floral notes while ensuring the pungent, camphor-like bitterness of the buds don’t overpower the rest of the extract).
Finally, it is important to note that when using fresh plant material, ratios tend to be more potent (1:2 - 1:3) since there is a higher water content present in fresh herbs, which will dilute the overall extract) and when using dried material, the we use much lower potency ratios, since in drying, most of the constituents are concentrated in the dried material as the water evaporates, thus requiring less potent ratios to draw out all of the plant constituents.
As always, don’t rely solely on numbers to assess quality and potency, we will continually be using our senses throughout the process to gather information on the potency and efficacy of each extract we make.
What about alcohol percentage?
Yep, also an important consideration. Different plants require different alcohol percentages (often depending on how much water is present in the plant material) Most extractions require alcohol percentages ranging from 40% ABV - 95% ABV. I recommend buying 190 proof alcohol (95% alcohol) in bulk and diluting as needed to get the right percentage (if you live in Chicago, you might need to head to the suburbs to buy 190 proof, as I don’t really find it in the city).
To determine the ABV based on ‘proof’ all you need to do is divide in half (100 proof = 50% ABV).
Unless you are making a fresh plant extract, 95% alcohol needs to be diluted to reach the desired concentration. The way I do this, (while not perfectly precise) does the trick:
Say I need 60% alcohol for a 1:5 tincture. I’ll measure my herb out at 100g. For the solvent, I know I need 500ml, but how much of that should be alcohol and how much should be water to end up with 500ml of 60% alcohol?
I take the desired final volume needed, 500ml, multiplied by 60% (or 500 x 0.6) to get 300ml of 95% alcohol to 200ml of water. Of course, we’re using 95% alcohol so the final ABV would actually be closer to 57%, but we’re trying to make it easy on ourselves here, so let’s just assume that 95% = 100% for the purpose of these calculations.
In the end you will get a ratio that looks something like this: Gentian, dried root tincture, 1:5 (dry), 60% alcohol
This ratio, or extraction rate as I often call it, indicates that you use 1 part dried gentian root to 5 parts solvent (using dried plant material) at 60% alcohol by volume (ABV).
This format is how most herbal formularies offer the preparation method.
Once you have the ratio, you are all set to start your batch. Below are some very simplified instructions for beginning a batch of a single plant extract (tincture) that will either be used as a ‘simple’ or eventually combined with other tinctures and sometimes a sweetener and some water or tea to create a bitters blend (or other herbal formula).
Starting your Batch:
Finishing your batch:
We go quite in depth into herbal medicine making and the virtues and uses of herbs in our Bioregional Herbalism Course. If you enjoyed this post, please check that out and sign up for our newsletter to get first notice of when we open enrollment for next year!
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